This Tuesday at 8/7c, in the penultimate episode of NCIS Season 11, Special Agent Tony DiNozzo is tasked with escorting an admiral’s beautiful daughter from Marseilles, France to the States — a bit of “babysitting” that will not come without (deadly) complications. On the occasion of DiNozzo’s French connection, TVLine invited original cast member Michael Weatherly to survey his alter ego’s latest exploits, reveal how the late Ralph Waite helped him reconnect with his own father and promise viewers “enormous” changes for Tony come Season 12.
TVLINE | It sounds like Tony is going to France this week… by way of Universal Studios.
The key thing about France-in-Hollywood, especially when it comes to our show, is that it’s always the backlot. And sometimes there’s a damsel in distress, and what that often means is that you need to send “the best of the best.” You need to send America’s very own James Bond, Tony DiNozzo. OK, basically it’s a babysitting job – a retrieval job – but the actress that I got to work with for those wonderful days is one of the most talented actors I have worked with in my whole career. Meg Steedle (Boardwalk Empire) is absolutely a joy, and a perfect fit for the specific brand of light comedy that I prefer to traffic in. Meg and I got to have all kinds of fun, in a Charade-style, “Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn on the run” sort of way. It was a very funny and light, with some nice twists. It’s my favorite episode in a long time, one where I actually got to do some other things. I think the audience will really like it.
TVLINE | [NCIS boss] Gary Glasberg keeps calling this a “Three Days of the Condor-type episode,” and that was a Robert Redford movie about a CIA researcher who comes back from lunch to find all of his colleagues murdered. Connect the dots – where is the similarity?
Well, there’s one scene, and I won’t spoil it for everybody, that it is eerily reminiscent of that film. And then there’s another scene where Tony references the movie and says, “It’s like Three Days of the Condor — except I’m Faye Dunaway.”
TVLINE | How is it, as an actor, when you’re off on your own like this, apart from the other principals, for an episode?
Well you know, it does happen from time to time, with The DiNozzo. The last time was going out to Israel to track down the lovely Ziva. And over the years there’ve been a couple other instances… like when I was handcuffed to Frank Whaley for the whole episode. But I always enjoy going out on a bit of a walkabout. And then it’s always nice to come back to the big orange room and see all my friends again.
TVLINE | In “The Admiral’s Daughter,” is Tony in action hero mode? Is there some derring-do?
I would say there is a degree of it. Maybe not as much as I would have liked, but at this point [in the season], also, I am tired. So it was nice to not have to run, and jump, and do too much of that. But this summer, actually, I am going to start training to do a triathlon in the fall. So maybe there’ll be a more physical DiNozzo in Season 12!
TVLINE | Tell me a bit about the May 13 season finale, which in large part pays tribute to the late Ralph Waite and his character, Jackson Gibbs. It sounds pretty damn emotional.
We were out at a cemetery and Ralph Waite’s cast chair was put out under a tree, and I think it gave everyone a moment to reflect on Ralph. And not just reflect on his wonderful contribution to our home at NCIS, but to his remarkable career and life. I had some great personal talks with Ralph over the years that I treasure. He will be missed and I’m very honored to be part of this show and this group of people that would make such a nice send-off, to a guy who really deserves it.
TVLINE | I come from a very large family, and my father happened to look a bit like Ralph Waite, so I of course grew up watching The Waltons. This guy was a part of my childhood.
He had a great sense of fun and he was a very determined, professional performer. And never ever did I get the sense that he wasn’t one hundred percent connected to the material and thrilled to be working. We had a series of episodes this winter — we shot the Robert Wagner episode, we had done a Ralph Waite episode, and then I was working with Keith Carradine, who in that episode turns out to have a son that he was unaware of – and after Ralph passed, I immediately went to the airport, got on a plane and flew down to Jamaica to see my dad, because I hadn’t seen him in nine months or so. Working on television, it’s very difficult to see family. Unless they live in Southern California, which mine does not, it’s pretty isolating. So, it was kind of as if Ralph gave me a nice moment with my own father.
TVLINE | Within the episode, what role do Tony and the others play in Gibbs’ grieving process?
Of course, this being NCIS, it’s tricky because there is a case — and Vance doesn’t want Gibbs, in his current state, to be dealing with the case. So, he puts DiNozzo in charge, and you know how that always ends up. That lasts about one act. [Laughs] Always a bridesmaid, Tony DiNozzo. Will he ever be the bride? I don’t know.
TVLINE | I understand that this season you’ve really been enjoying the stuff with Sean Murray, with DiNozzo/McGee.
Sean and just had lunch and watched [last week's] episode, which I think is one of the great episodes of our season. [Director] Dennis Smith did a terrific job. Again, he always just makes these great, great shows. It’s fun and light, but also deep and moving and impactful. It’s what NCIS does best, that balance of making you feel good and warming your heart but also making you laugh out loud, hopefully a couple of times.
TVLINE | And did I read that while shooting the April 22 episode, you yourself actually gave the cleanse a try?
It lasted about six hours. I thought that would be funny. That was not funny. So yeah, no. Cleansing is not a great idea. For anybody.
TVLINE | Well, speaking of funny…. Do you still feel like people are laughing with Tony and not at him, which is a perception-slash-concern shared by a few fans out there?
I think it’s a very tricky balance for a lot of reasons. But I think that Tony, this season, has been without his foil in the way of Ziva David (played by Cote de Pablo). In some ways, that’s been good for him because he didn’t have that crutch, that go-to. He kind of had to figure some stuff out. And listen, sometimes Tony’s a hot mess! I love him, but I think the guy probably has in the last season spent a few too many days feeling sorry for himself, sitting on the couch, eating Doritos and watching reruns of It Takes a Thief – during which he probably keeps saying to himself, “Wow, Robert Wagner looks just like my father.” But what Gary Glasberg and I were discussing the other day is that the end of this season for Tony was maybe a bit of a putting to bed some of those clownish quirks, the ones that are over the top. And I think that for the most part, they have disappeared. But sometimes, like when you have to get McGee ready to be undercover as a homeless person, you go a little a little crazy with “the cat pee odor.” Sometimes Tony is not supposed to be likeable all the way. Sometimes he’s not supposed to be the hero. Because, look, if Tony could do all of the stuff — if he was balanced and quick and thinking on his feet, and great with a gun — then what’s he doing? It’s like the guy should be out running around doing his own thing.
TVLINE | Right, right.
So, I think he’s always limited by the guarantee of the sort of team dynamic. And I do see that changing. I have looked ahead … and I’m really excited to put Tony into the next phase of his being. I’m ready for whatever that is as an actor. As a character, this was the year where he kind of “met himself,” and I think we’re going to see big changes for him next fall. Enormous changes, I would think.
TVLINE | Let’s talk about this season’s new addition to the team, Ellie Bishop (played by Emily Wickersham). Was it kind of a relief for you to read that this new character was married? Was a part of you like, “Whew, I’m not going to have to pull off that whole angsty, ‘Will they, won’t they’ thing all over again?”
I don’t think, actually, that it really matters if she’s married or not, in the world of the stories that we tell. And I don’t know how happily married she can possibly be, she’s always with us! I would say one of the weirdest things about the whole season is that nobody seems to have noticed that she’s attractive. And I don’t mean Tony, I mean nobody. I think they were between a rock and a hard place bringing her in, because they didn’t want her to be romantic in any way with anyone, yet they hired a beautiful woman. I think the producers and writers and actors, we’ve all been working to figure out, “How does the Bishop character work best?”
TVLINE | I know you keep in touch with Cote. Did you give her any “playful guff” last summer when the rest of you were left to field all these questions about what was going on?
Gosh, no. I had a great conversation with Cotes before she went off to do The 33, the miner movie. And I’m looking forward to seeing her in the next few days, now that we’re wrapped and I actually have my life back. I’m going on a nice, long walk with her and catching up. Cote is an artist and is a really talented actor, and I am excited to see what her journey has been like. It’s hard when you’re in production. I mean, can barely make time to talk to Matt Mitovich, let alone somebody who is five time zones away.
TVLINE | You talked about your hopes for Season 12, for Tony and the “next phase of his being.” Would you like to see him eventually have another serious love interest, or would you rather leave people to believe that he’s carrying a torch and waiting for Ziva? What do you think serves the character the best?
I believe that he has put Ziva in a drawer. The difficult part for him is that he said, “Come with me” and she said, “I can’t do that.” He was rebuffed, he was rejected, and the sting of that has been there for him all season. I don’t know how other people, including the viewers, see it, but that’s just how I processed it. And it was bittersweet because as Sting would say, “If you love someone, set them free.” Maybe Sting didn’t coin that, but he certainly put it to music. Tony had to let her go to follow her dream and her passion — and that didn’t include him. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but he knows that she’s following her dream. And that couldn’t make him happier, right?
TVLINE | Right.
So, I think now what’s happening is Tony has to figure out, “Hey what’s my dream?” For DiNozzo, this is the next iteration of his thinking, which I think he’s coming around to. It’s interesting that Season 11 ends the way it does, because it reminds me of some other seasons on other shows that I’ve been on, where you’re like, “I think I see a change coming….” Again, to me, what’s really important is that the show has a classic, standard operating procedure. But sometimes you’re not recording Exile on Main Street anymore, you’re making Tattoo You. That is the evolution of everything. I’m very excited to see what we do next. The nice thing is that I think we can move forward and really come out of the box with some surprises in Season 12. And look, I love being surprised more than anybody, so I’m going to do my best, and I know everyone else is going to do their best. I think the season ends on an incredibly high note. Honoring Ralph, the fun little capers in the south of France, [last week's] episode about the homeless vets…. Those are a great three episodes of “classic NCIS.” And my promise to you is that we will make some excellent NCIS in Season 12. That’s my promise to everyone, that I’m going to raise the bar.